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Thursday’s Work-in-Progress: Reading (and Promoting) the Enemy

Earlier this week, Twitter led me to agent Jennifer Laughran’s blog, where a post titled “Reading with the Enemy” had launched a really fascinating and complicated discussion about issues I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about myself (including over the past few weeks after reading Tracy Hahn-Burkett’s related post on “A Bit of Controversy in Your Platform?”).

I encourage you to read Jennifer’s whole post, but I’m going to excerpt what I think are the key questions (they’re the ones I’m still thinking about, anyway):

Lots of people are less awesome in real life than we’d like them to be. They are… well, they are people. People are flawed. Some people believe things that you don’t believe. Some of them do things you wouldn’t do. Some are real schmucks. Some of them are actually criminals. Does this take away from their work?

I seriously want to know: Do you expect creators to be “nice” or have private lives or political beliefs that you approve of? Do you think this is an unreasonable expectation?

Can you separate somebody’s political/personal/religious views or personality from their artwork/writing/music?

If you met an author and he was a real jerk to you – would you read his books? What if you were already a fan? Would you stop liking whatever you’d liked before?

If you saw some art, and you had no knowledge of the creator, and you thought it was a work of genius… and then you found out the artist had murdered somebody then committed suicide ten years ago… would you think less of the artwork?

Same piece of artwork, you have no knowledge of the creator, you think it is a work of genius… and then you overhear the artist telling racist jokes at the bar. Think less of the artwork now?

Jennifer goes on to say: “I AM FULL OF QUESTIONS AND THOUGHTS on this topic and I could go on for ages – I’d love to hear what you all think. [ETA: To clarify (or mystify?) even further: Despite however it might sound above, I really DON’T have concrete opinions on this topic. It’s a big one, and I myself am completely conflicted and unable to process it without emotions. So don’t worry about offending me or anything else – I am asking what you think because I really want to know!]”

She is so right. It’s a huge topic. And, like her, I’m also full of questions and thoughts on the topic, and I, too, could go on for ages about it (I’d even expand it beyond “mere” reading to promoting/blogging about/reviewing work by authors you might find “problematic”). But for now, I’m more interested in hearing what YOU think.

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15 Responses »

  1. On a personal level is one thing. He likes to kick puppies, I’ll give him up.

    But one of the first things to come to my mind was how those with Agendas exploit such things. The Hollowood Blacklists, for one. And the Watergate era “Don’t buy books from crooks!” campaign.

    In these times the only exercise a lot of folks get is rushing to judgement. Then they try to inflict those judgements on others.

  2. I doubt that I would read/look at/listen to their work. Because I, too, am human with my own human flaws and I wouldn’t spend a penny on their work.

  3. Thanks so much for including my post, Erika.

    Putting the whole picture together to include an author or artist’s personality and bad behavior of any stripe makes this a very complicated–but fascinating–discussion. I’m actually a bit amazed how many people in the comments to Jennifer’s post were able to state categorically, “I don’t take into account anything personal about the author or artist” (or words to that effect). Really? If you learn, say, that a beautiful painting of a nude girl you’ve been admiring in a museum was created by a convicted serial killer of women, you’re really not going to look at that painting differently? I don’t know if I’m impressed or a bit wary of you. Or both.

    I do think the situation I just outlined differs from what I wrote about in the piece, “A Bit of Controversy in Your Platform?” There I mostly discussed writers’ views on political (and sometimes other) matters, and going public with those views in a well thought-out manner. This differs from disrespectful rants, unjustifiable criminal behavior, human rights abuses, causing harm to other people, etc.

    Can someone who has done bad or even awful things produce artistic work of value? Yes, and let’s remember that sometimes, society’s opinion of what is bad changes over time. For example, where once an author or artist might have been widely condemned for “homosexual behavior,” thankfully, this just isn’t the case anymore. But the example of the serial killer above? I suppose if he wrote a work of, say, fiction that depicted a childhood of abuse and which was also well written, I might want to read that both for its literary value and for the insight it offers into the mind of someone like that. But his painting of the nude girl will still give me the creeps.

    I guess what I’m saying (in very long-winded fashion; sorry) is that a lot of it is contextual, so rushing to judgement on someone probably isn’t the best policy. Learn before you form an opinion. And yes, people are products of their time, although in many cases, that isn’t a sufficient excuse.

    A work is only a part of the person who creates it, and as many authors have learned, it takes on a life of its own once it leaves that person’s hands. I can enjoy and appreciate the works of many authors, artists and musicians even though they weren’t or aren’t perfect or even good people.

    But I have a confession to make: when a Michael Jackson song comes on the radio, I switch the station.

  4. I can honestly say that if I had knowledge of a creative person’s wrong-doing and it was serious, then I would not be interested in the work. Why? We are all creative beings, and I think that while some may have an inborn gift and and some may have honed their skills over a lifetime, the choice
    must ultimately be something I can live with. We arrive with nothing, we leave with nothing. All one has to hold onto are the choices and principles we live by, and I don’t want to leave feeling that I did not live a conscious life, following my own principles of ethical behavior.
    Some years ago, we had a convicted murderer given an art exhibit at a local college. An uproar ensued, and the work was taken down. This individual had killed a police officer and left behind
    a widow and 2 small children. The prisoner in question had developed a skill while encarcerated, and had some natural ability as well. But that does not mean that I would be interested in gathering socially to examine his work. The creative process may well be part of the divine in us all, but that does not mean that I can overlook such destructive actions by an individual. One does not need one’s art to be viewed by the world to make the act of creating valid or relevant. I feel that if I had viewed his art, I would have been participating, on some level, in his life and that includes his destructive acts. That I will not do.

  5. Thank you all for your thoughtful comments.

    Many of you have focused on the element of the artist’s behavior/personal qualities and how that might affect the way you approach his/her work, and perhaps that is indeed what seems to be emphasized in the excerpt I chose. I suppose what I may be even more interested in right now is the element of the artist’s politics, which is what Tracy’s post set forth. In a sense, I felt that that strand of the “Reading the Enemy” post and discussion took Tracy’s post to the next level: potential consequences of taking a stand as a politically-engaged writer. Which something that I’ve wrestled with (and will certainly continue to wrestle with). See this essay, drawn from a longer talk, for some more about that.

    Thanks again for contributing to the discussion. I’m grateful.

  6. I don’t think I do this. That is, avoid reading writers whose politics offend me. Although, I have to say, I was really, really, REALLY annoyed with Jonathan Franzen when he wrote a caricature of a fundamentalist Christian into the last part of FREEDOM. Really annoyed. But I liked the book on the whole and I really appreciated its art, and especially its structure.

    And yet, well, I suppose it’s hard not to be put off by a writer whose politics I find offensive. I don’t just mean that they stray a bit more to the left than I do or anything like that but if they are really vocal and public about a political position that offends me to the point it almost feels personal, well, then, I can’t do it.

    One more thing, and this is a bit of a side note, but I just can’t stomach fiction that has a heavy agenda. For example, I loved much of The Poisonwood Bible, but then she seemed to get overly political towards the end, and I just grew bored with it. It’s just not what fiction is for. The same goes for writers who write with an agenda that I happen to agree with. I just don’t like it when the author’s political or moral or any other kind of agenda becomes so enormous or so on-the-surface that the story suffers.

    But then, I’ve wondered, too, if it’s possible to write anything that is completely apolitical. I don’t think it is. We all begin with a worldview. I just don’t like it when I feel the writer is trying to teach me something or when they get on a soapbox in the middle of a story. The writer is intruding on the story. The writer, in my opinion, needs to hold back, just tell the story.

    This is such an interesting topic!!

    • Erika, I just read the essay you linked to–about being both a writer and a zealot–and I almost want to change my mind. Is there a difference between a passion for a particular passion versus out-and-out sermonizing? Of course there is, and it’s an important difference. Which is why, maybe, Jonathan Franzen’s obvious disdain for religious people (particularly Christians) annoyed me while his bird-passion came through in a clear, beautiful way. And the same thing with Kingsolver. I really liked the Bean Trees, which I think really showcases her passion for human rights.

      And, Erika, I’ve read most of the stories in your wonderful collection. Your passion for Israel comes through, loud and clear, but I never felt preached to.

      • Thank you so much for your comments, Susan. But what happens when whatever is perceived as “zealotry” happens *outside* the fiction/poetry/art? What happens when it’s on Twitter or Facebook, or in op-eds? When the political (or religious, etc.) is clearly personal, so to speak?

        And what does a writer do if/when a writerly organization to which s/he may belong (say, as a dues-paying member) articulates political positions with which s/he disagrees?

        Those are the kinds of things that really keep me struggling.

        • Well, I think it does taint how you encounter the person’s work, if they’re off on fb or wherever taking political stands you don’t agree with, but I’m not sure if for me it means I just won’t read the work. I think that what impacts my choice to read or not read is how the writer presents his/her views. I appreciate a writer who has passionate views, even if they’re not my own. But if they are disrespectful or hateful in how these views are expressed, that does give me pause.

          And, I guess there have been a few times. I’m a Christian, and when, a few years ago a very famous writer made some very public disparaging remarks about Christianity, it just didn’t make me want to run out and grab his books.

          So, I guess I am, as a reader, more apt to avoid a writer if he/she speaks out against something that’s important to me, but not so much if he/she speaks for something that he/she is clearly passionate about.

          Ah, but now I’m remembering something. (Sorry–I’m all over the place here.) A writer, who was actually an instructor of mine, pretty much berated me for choosing to homeschool my kids. People have very strong opinions about that (although I personally say educate YOUR children however you want! But leave mine alone!). Anyway, so she was actually pretty rude about it, but she is otherwise a terribly nice person and I like her work, so I keep on reading.

          The more I ramble, the more confused I get…

          • Oh, and one more thing! Speaking as a writer, I was once invited to attend an event that was a benefit for an organization I don’t much care for…for very personal reasons. So, I declined.

          • Susan, I don’t think you’re rambling, but I know what you mean! It seems to me that the more I think about this, the more threads there are to untangle.

            I do appreciate your comments, very much!

  7. In his poem, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”, W. H. Auden writes of time’s “strange excuse” that “Pardoned Kipling and his views,/And will pardon Paul Claudel,/Pardons him [Yeats] for writing well.”

    Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Lawrence, so many of the Moderns, were, in their personal lives foolish individuals attracted to the extreme right and the “solutions” it proposed. Before them, Degas was a vile hater of Jews and behaved disgracefully during the Dreyfus case, as did Renoir. Can anyone think of a nastier piece of artistic creation than Dickens’ Fagin?

    Yet, do we stop reading Yeats, Lawrence, Pound, Eliot, Dickens? Do we refuse to open “Oliver Twist”? Do we boycott exhibitions of work by Degas or Renoir or walk past their canvases in galleries, our heads turned away?

    Is it then time that ‘pardons’ these men for writing/painting/composing (think of Wagner!) well? Or is it an odd sort of selective amnesia that enables individuals to loathe the ideologies, the prejudices, but treasure the work? I can only answer for myself and I suspect that, yes, it is.

    The British academic, John Carey produced a provocative book called “The Intellectuals and the Masses” that looks at the contradictions between the personal beliefs of writers in the first half of the twentieth century and the work they produced. Well worth reading.

    • Clive, you are so in tune with another set of threads here that I’ve been thinking about as well. In fact, I’ve mentioned Eliot specifically to others (and, I think, in print) as an example of someone whose work I adore–yet am glad that there’s no chance I’ll ever run into him at a writers’ conference or gathering! I think time works in multiple ways–as you’ve posited above in terms of time and selective amnesia–plus, because as much as we know about these writers from the past, they are still less accessible to us. They are not on Facebook or Twitter, they aren’t giving keynotes at conferences we attend, they aren’t signing online petitions. They simply aren’t saying anything else anymore. Barring archival discoveries, there’s little they can “do” the way our own contemporaries can. If that makes sense.

      Thanks for the book recommendation, too.

  8. I’m wondering if one of the questions here is whether or not politics and art can/should appropriately merge in a literary work. And whether it is acceptable to some for a writer to use
    his/her skill and talent to address societal politics or proclaim one’s own political views. I think many, many writers/ artists create from both a personal and political perspective. It is nearly impossible to avoid, as we are members of a community, a society, a nation etc.
    Where would we be without this “food for thought” as members of the human family? Then, too,
    for someone like myself, who is a mixed race Native woman in the U.S., I find it very difficult to
    separate my condition (as a woman, as an Indigenous person) from my writing when I create. To
    be a member of an oppressed group IS to be political, because I am, in one sense, a product of
    the sociopolitical dynamics I grew up in.
    That said, do I as a writer feel it is okay to infuse one’s writing with a political stance? Yes. Would I be put off reading such material? It depends. The word has great power to shape ideas and focus minds. Most of my politics around race and culture emerges in my poetry. Would I read the writings of a murderer? Or an SS officer? A Rwandan general who participated in genocidal acts?
    No. Simply put, it is an individual choice.

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